James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
Strawberries, Blueberries, New Shells
If you live in Maine, there are a few ways to know summer is in full swing: a vast increase in out of state license plates; an abundance of fresh strawberries and blueberries; and if you have anything to do with the lobster fishing industry, the arrival of New Shells. Each year, lobsters migrate from off shore to the inshore coastal waters where they shed their old shell before beginning their return journey back offshore as “New Shells”. When the “shed” happens, the catch volume increases dramatically and marks the start of the high season for lobstermen. Like an accountant during tax season, a lobster fisherman during New Shell season is a busy man.
I went hauling with Jason Witham just about the time the strawberries came into bloom. He fishes off of Green Island, an island his family owns that lies about 7 miles offshore outside of Tenants Harbor. I had been hearing chatter on the VHF radio, which fishermen use to discuss all manner of things – whether they are catching anything; the price of lobster; how the tide is running; whether an inground pool is better than an above ground pool; whether they are going to the fireworks for the 4th of July – and talk on the wharf that New Shell season, or shedders as they’re colloquially called, was coming. The day I hauled with Jason was a picture perfect Maine summer day – we left the wharf at 5:30 with the sun already warm and the water like glass. Jason is in his early 40s with an easy smile, an affable manner and a deep affection for Jimmy Buffet. His sternman, Ethan Hupper, a kid of 19, rivaled Jason for good humor. When we reached Green Island, Jason throttled back and turned on the radio: tuned to Sirius Margaretville, and soon above the sound of the engine, and the hydraulic hauler, Jimmy Buffet filled the air.
We hauled pairs – two traps to a trawl – the lobsters we were catching were about half and half – half new shell and half hard shell. “The shed usually hits us about a week or two after it hits the guys fishing out of Tenants Harbor,” noted Jason. This made sense – the shed typically occurs from West to East. Mostly people think the coast in Maine runs north to south – but really it runs more east to west – hence the expression downeast. The shed starts to the west, where it warms up earlier, and typically works its way eastward, hitting the coldest waters last. Since Green Island is further East than the inland waters, he would see the shed happen a bit later. “Typically, it’s a pretty steady increase once they hit,” Jason remarked. “Our catch grows incrementally, hitting a high point mid-late summer, plateaus for a while and then drops off again.” The day I hauled with him we were about 50% new shell and 50% hard shell. “Another couple of weeks I’d say,” Jason told me.
A few days later, I caught up with Jason’s wife Anita at their beautiful home in South Thomason. I wanted to get a read on what it was like for her when New Shell season hit. She welcomed me warmly and we began chatting. “Busy,” she said, “and the days are very long.” Anita works for the social security administration and she and Jason have a 4-year-old son named Bodie. “During the summer and early fall months, it’s basically just me on the home front, at least in the mornings,” Anita noted. “He’s good, he’ll always try and get Bodie if he’s in early enough in the afternoon, but it’s hit or miss this time of year. In the winter, he doesn’t haul nearly as much and is around much more.” Anita was not from a fishing family, she hails originally from Sandish, Maine, and about moving to coastal Maine and becoming part of a fishing community she noted, “it’s been a big adjustment, we always try and carve a few weekend out in the summer to do things, but it’s challenging to find time.”
Several weeks later, I hauled again with Jason. This time the strawberries had gone by but the blueberries were coming into season. The first part of the day was the same – the steam across glassy calm water with the warm summer sun, Jason and Ethan with their good natured smiles and easy banter, and of course, Jimmy Buffet as the soundtrack – but when it came to the lobsters, it was an entirely different ballgame. It was almost all New Shells we were catching and lots of them. Like last time, we hauled pairs all day, but at the very end of the day we came inside, very close to shore where Jason had set 40 singles. “I haven’t hauled these yet,” he said as he gaffed the first buoy, “they are just on two nights,” which means they had only sat with bait in them for two nights. I’m not particularly experienced at fishing and I’ve not been out hauling all that much, so my perspective isn’t vast, but still, I could not believe what I saw when the first trap came up. It was filled – literally – with New Shells – and they were huge – sometime 3 or 4 “selects” to a trap. Trap after trap was brimming. I’d never seen it take so long to empty a trap – and never seen so many ‘keepers’ per trap. “Well” Jason said wryly as he hauled the last trap of the day, “I guess they’re here”.